Last year’s Bard In The Botanics season in Glasgow was titled “Muse Of Fire,” mainly because it focused on four mighty Shakespeare plays - Hamlet, As You Like It, Richard III and Henry V, from which the quote is taken - that, alongside Macbeth, contain some of the most blazingly powerful stage poetry ever written. The Scotsman Sessions season already includes a fragment from Nicole Cooper’s groundbreaking performance as a grief-stricken female Hamlet; and Jennifer Dick’s brief and searingly intense version of Richard III - which she both adapted and directed - made an equally powerful impact, when it opened in the intimate space of the Kibble Palace glass house, towards the end of July 2019.
The production was staged in modern dress, and backed by heavy riffs of electronic rock music; and it also seized on Richard’s very contemporary obsession with image and appearance, as a future monarch marked out by physical deformity, and intent on concealing the calculated evil of the schemes that propel him to power. There was much use of mobile phones throughout, to record Richard’s public appearances, and dispatch the results straight to social media, the better to whip up support among the people; and a broad hint that his apparently more benign successor Henry VII would not be slow, following Richard’s death at Bosworth, to adopt the same dark arts of spin and image-making.
For all its 21st century resonances, though, the key to the success of Jennifer Dick’s production lay in the very traditional strengths of Robert Elkin’s central performance as Richard. Elkin is a long-standing member of Gordon Barr’s Bard In The Botanics team, who - alongside a career that also involves appearances in television shows including the BBC’s Peaky Blinders - has delivered a formidable range of Shakespeare performances in Glasgow over the years, including Mercutio in Romeo And Juliet, Richard in Richard II, and a male Beatrice-figure known as Bertram, in a gender-shifting Much Ado About Nothing in 2013.
Like the rest of Barr’s ensemble, Elkin has therefore been able to develop, over the years, a formidable relationship with Shakespeare’s poetry, including the technical mastery, confidence and trust, in performance, that fully unleashes its huge power; and the result, in Richard III, was a performance that, in best Shakespeare tradition, used the sheer force of the poetry to create the space in which Jennifer Dick’s 21st century take on the story could work.
Here, in the play’s famous opening monologue, we see Elkin weaving his way brilliantly through some of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare, into the character of this deeply damaged man, consciously choosing the moral darkness to which others have often relegated him since birth. In the gathering darkness of the Kibble Palace, as summer day turned to night, his performance had a brooding, heartbreaking force; and represented a huge tribute both to the tireless work of Barr and his company in keeping alive the tradition of Shakespeare performance in Scotland, and to the sheer power and depth of Shakespeare’s vision of political evil and ambition - a vision, alas, which never loses its relevance, and never grows old.
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